Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
18May/150

Amor Mundi 5/17/15

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upBeing Toward Death

death maskDeath today has been medicalized and marginalized. But this has not always been the case. To illustrate, Deborah Lutz has explored the way the Victorians approached death and has found a much different and worthy approach to the dying body. "What I came to realize was that the Victorians cared about the mortal body; its very mortality mattered profoundly to them. Today we try to deny the body's movement toward death, its inevitable decay. The Victorians, instead of fearing the process of dying and the corpse, felt reverence. These were stages in the life of a beloved body and should be treasured. Indeed, the image of the corpse was worthy of fixing with the art of the death mask, painting or photography. A snippet of hair was often turned into jewelry. What was beautiful--and tragic, but more lovely for all that--was the body's ephemerality, its being always on the way to disappearing. The Victorians recognized that death's presence was woven into the texture of life, giving that life one of its essential meanings. Religion, of course, played a role in this attitude. Evangelical revivals early in the 19th century reinvigorated the tradition of the good death, in which God called believers to him. Even the sinful might be saved in the end, and this salvation could be seen in the face of the dying and heard in their words. Dying was something to be watched--a triumph even.... What we have lost is not only a savoring of ephemerality, but also an appreciation of the way that time marks the body. We try too hard to keep the terminally ill alive because we can't admit to finality. This has begun to change with the rise of the hospice movement and the work of a handful of artists, like Ishiuchi Miyako and Sophie Calle, who are interested in documenting the dying of loved ones. Even so, the philosopher Walter Benjamin's lament in the 1930s about death still rings true. By avoiding the sight of the dying, he felt, one misses the moment when the meaning of a life is completed and illuminated in its ending. The denial of death then leads to the demise of the art of storytelling. He called his contemporaries 'dry dwellers of eternity' because they 'live in rooms that have never been touched by death.'"

The Wrong Stuff

death chamberJeffrey E. Stern reports on a recent botched execution in Oklahoma and on the source of the problem, namely, the difficulty of finding the right drugs: "What many people don't realize, however, is that choosing the specific drugs and doses involves as much guesswork as expertise. In many cases, the person responsible for selecting the drugs has no medical training. Sometimes that person is a lawyer--a state attorney general or an attorney for the prison. These officials base their confidence that a certain drug will work largely on the fact that it has seemed to work in the past. So naturally, they prefer not to experiment with new drugs. In recent years, however, they have been forced to do so... The problems began at a pharmaceutical plant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The Food and Drug Administration discovered that some of the drugs made there were contaminated and in April 2010 sent the manufacturer, Hospira, a warning letter. Hospira stopped producing, among other drugs, a barbiturate called sodium thiopental. No other company was approved by the FDA to make sodium thiopental, which was the anesthetic of choice for almost all of the states that carried out executions." Stern doesn't editorialize. But the horrific facts of the case themselves seem to ask whether or not this punishment fits any crime.

Thingification

thingsRussell Jacoby is critical of the academic fashion for studies of objects, books on golf balls, paper clips, and doorknobs. This kind of microscopic approach can be done well--Jacoby offers the excellent example of the Sigfried Giedion's 1948 Mechanization Takes Command. But in the current iteration of object studies, Jacoby discerns an empty, consumerist, apolitical desire expression of exhaustion. "The tendencies here reflect new academic fashions that seem to move in two opposite directions--fields get larger and subject matter smaller. We have new fields of global studies or material culture--allied to object theory--which seem to cover everything; but they frequently serve as licenses to study very small things. The connections, in any case, between larger fields and microstudies are hardly addressed. A recent issue of the Journal of Material Culture, for instance, has an article on energy shortages in an African city ('Infrastructure turned suprastructure: Unpredictable materialities and visions of a Nigerian nation') and the incompatible standards of electrical plugs in Western Europe ('Plugging in: Power sockets, standards and the valencies of national habitus'). There is nothing wrong with this--except that after all the theoretical panting we are left gawking at unrelated items in the display case of history. For all the references to Lukacs, object study bespeaks reification, turning social relations into things. Perhaps an awkward French translation for reification, 'chosification'--'thingification' in English--captures something of Lukacs' concept. Historical material subject to potential change gets transmuted into things subject to passive viewing."

Design Within Reach

homelessAndrea DenHoed applauds an undergraduate design class project which is aimed at alleviating the problem of homelessness in New York City: "Perhaps it's fanciful to be discussing beautiful design in the face of horror stories about the city's neglected, dilapidated shelters. Or perhaps the project of reconceptualizing what it means to house the homeless goes hand in hand with the project of finding sustainable approaches to homelessness. (In an area where the best practices seem wholly inadequate to the problem at hand, and where departures from orthodoxy--such as a Utah experiment that simply gave homeless people houses--can be notably fruitful, the idea of radical reconceptualization is particularly attractive.) But the ability to conceive of and implement beautiful design with scarce resources is a great test of skill and talent, and it's worth wondering whether top-tier designers would even be interested in these tight-budget contracts. ('My passion still goes to high-end residential spaces,' which allow for extensive customization, one student said.) But from the working designer's point of view, designing for a low-income demographic might offer another kind of freedom. Walz said that he's observed a growing discontent among interior designers with some of the changes that economic trends have wrought on their profession. 'Everybody has sort of had it with the sense of entitlement in certain parts of the population,' he said. 'But nobody wants to talk about it--you don't want to bite the hand that feeds you.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upArendt's Moral Groundwork

hannah arendtCorey Robin has a long essay on Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann controversy in the latest Nation. Robin's article has the virtue of length and breadth, allowing him to explore Arendt's critics and their errors but also to search for meaning in the recurring conflict. He asks, "What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann's readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?" Robin takes on Arendt's critics on many levels, and in the end argues that Arendt's account of the Eichmann trial, was, as Arendt once wrote, "the groundwork for creating new political morals." Robin writes: "If evil comes in small steps, overcoming it, nearing goodness, also inheres in small steps. As Susan Neiman explains: 'Arendt was convinced that evil could be overcome only if we acknowledge that it overwhelms us in ways that are minute. Great temptations are easier to recognize and thus to resist, for resistance comes in heroic terms. Contemporary dangers begin with trivial and insidious steps.' Return the coat of collateral at night; take the eggs, not the bird; give a hunted Jew a truck. Jerusalem, then--not the Athens of the Greeks or the Königsberg of Kant--may be not only the site but also the spirit of Arendt's text. The intransigence of her ethic of everyday life, her insistence that every action matters, that we attend to the minutes of our practice--not the purity of our souls but the justness of our conduct and how it will affect things; if not now, when all is hopeless, then in the future, when all will be remembered--that kind of mindfulness is reminiscent, too, of the Hebraic ethos described by Arnold in Culture and Anarchy: 'this energy driving at practice' that 'would not let the Hebrew rest till, as is well known, he had at last got out of the law a network of prescriptions to enwrap his whole life, to govern every moment of it, every impulse, every action.' On December 21, 1962, two months before the first of her articles would appear in The New Yorker, Arendt gave her friend, the literary critic Alfred Kazin, a copy of the manuscript. The next day, he finished it. Overwhelmed by 'the stink of so much evil,' he went out for a walk. He 'walked and walked,' he writes in his journal, 'shivering to get the wintry pure air into my lungs.' Then he was hit by a realization: 'Hannah in her imperious yecke [a Yiddish term for German Jews] way is one of the just.' 'This is the lightning in her to which I always respond. She has the fundamental sense of value. She still believes in the right. Oddly enough, she still believes in the Ten Commandments.'"

In Search of a Human Humanities Conference

humanities conferenceChristy Wampole poses a simple question many of us ask regularly: Why are academic conferences so boring? "We are weary of academic conferences. We are humanists who recognize very little humanity in the conference format and content. We have sat patiently and politely through talks read line by line in a monotone voice by a speaker who doesn't look up once, wondering why we couldn't have read the paper ourselves in advance with a much greater level of absorption. We have tried to ignore the lack of a thesis or even one interesting sentence in a 20-minute talk. Our jaws have hung in disbelief as a speaker tries to squeeze a 30-minute talk into a 20-minute slot by reading too fast to be understood. We have been one of two attendees at a panel.... Academic conferences are a habit from the past, embraced by the administrativersity as a way to showcase knowledge and to increase productivity in the form of published conference proceedings. We have been complicit. Until now. We believe it is time to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of the conference?" It is an excellent question, and one that should spur experimentation. Hannah Arendt Center Conferences are one attempt to re-imagine the tired academic conference by bringing academics together with students, the engaged public, artists, business people, and public intellectuals to explore present concerns in politics through the humanities. If you haven't attended one of our events, join us at our next conference: Private Life: Why Does it Matter?

Drugs, Babies, and Poverty in America

muskogeeReflecting on poverty and the unrest in Baltimore, Thomas B. Edsall offers a comparison with Muskogee, Oklahoma. "Today Muskogee, Okla., a city of 38,863, has nine drug treatment centers and a court specifically devoted to drug offenders. A search for 'methamphetamine arrest' on the website of the Muskogee Phoenix, the local newspaper, produces 316 hits. In 2013 just under two-thirds of the births in the city of Muskogee, 62.6 percent, were to unwed mothers, including 48.3 percent of the births to white mothers. The teenage birthrate in Oklahoma was 47.3 per 1,000; in Muskogee, it's 59.2, almost twice the national rate, which is 29.7. The Baltimore poverty rate is 23.8 percent, 8.4 points above the national rate, but below Muskogee's 27.7 percent. The median household income in Baltimore is $41,385, $11,661 below the $53,046 national level, but $7,712 above Muskogee's $33,664.... Why am I talking about Muskogee? Two reasons. The first is that the Baltimore riots have become a vehicle for conservatives to point to the city as an emblem of the failure of liberalism and the Democratic Party. The current state of affairs in Muskogee suggests that the left does not deserve exclusive credit for social disorder. The second reason is that worsening conditions in working-class white Republican communities indicate that the conservative moral agenda has not decisively won the battle for the hearts of America's youth.... If conservatives place responsibility on liberal Democrats, feminism and the abandonment of traditional family values for Baltimore's decay, what role did the 249 churches in and around Muskogee play in that city's troubles? The fact is that the poor and working classes of both races were not well equipped to adjust to changes in behavior driven by the sexual revolution and the second demographic transition--a collection of forces that are inexorably changing the family, marriage patterns and child rearing worldwide." On the left there is a conviction that racism lies behind the problems in Baltimore. On the right, they blame feminism, gay rights, and the loss of religious order. Edsall focuses on the similarities between the breakdown of society in both Baltimore and Muskogee, arguing that they reflect a more widespread demographic and moral collapse.

Critical Miss

computerJon Peterson remembers a moment just before the internet when fiction seemed like it might be intruding on truth, networks and hacking struck fear in the heart of the government, and the Secret Service thought it was protecting the public good by confiscating the manual to a tabletop role-playing game: "In hindsight, it's difficult to explain how esoteric computers appeared to the mainstream in the 1980s. The Internet existed--but even in 1990, few had any inkling of the prominence it would soon attain. It was just one of several communications networks, largely confined to university environments and overshadowed by closed monolithic information services like CompuServe. The web as such didn't exist either, and even functions like email and newsgroups depended on a patchwork of interconnected systems with limited standardization. The promise of an open, global network for commerce, entertainment, and personal communications remained in the realm of science fiction... But in 1990, the territory where these stories played out remained imaginary: the Internet lingered on the cusp of becoming habitable. Only a marginal community of hobbyists spent any significant fraction of their lives online, in various bulletin boards, newsgroups, and chat services where they communicated with like-minded explorers of the electronic frontier. Perhaps the closest you could get at that time to an experience of Gibson's future was in the role-playing games that tried to capture the flavor of that world, known by the genre label 'cyberpunk.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #9

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

 

 


privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Hans Teerds reflects on how we understand architecture as a political concern and, by extension, understand Karl Jaspers' spatial approach to thinking in the Quote of the Week. We share a link to a broadcast by Deutschlandfunk Radio that provides some coverage of "Can We Have Some Privacy?," a conference we sponsored earlier this month. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh, reflects on writing, thinking, and life in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Bethany Zulick, a HAC student fellow, recounts artist Jeanne van Heeswijk's lecture for our spring 2015 "Courage to Be" dinner/speaker series. Finally, we appreciate two annotations Arendt made to her copy of "Black Reconstruction in America" in this week's Library feature.

bill t. jones On Tuesday, May 5th, we had the pleasure of talking with American choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones and with members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company following a rehearsal for their upcoming world premiere performance, "Analogy/Dora: Tramontane." We will be uploading a recording of our Q&A session with Jones and company to our Vimeo account in the next few weeks. Please stay tuned!

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
27Apr/150

Archimedes and the Anthropocene

Anthropocene

Source: YouTube

By Jeffrey Champlin

“Without actually standing where Archimedes wished to stand (dos moi pou sto), still bound to the earth through the human condition, we have found a way to act on the earth and within terrestrial nature as though we dispose of it from outside, from the Archimedean point. And even at the risk of endangering the natural life process we expose the earth to universal, cosmic forces alien to nature's household.”

-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The final chapter of The Human Condition takes an apparently disheartening turn beyond Arendt's core development of the concepts of labor, work, and action. While Chapter 4 on "Action" offers the hope of people coming together to start something new in a reinvigorated sense of the political, Chapter 5 seems to narrate the inevitable decline of "the modern age's triumphal world alienation." In particular, her use of the way science can now "act on the earth" fundamentally challenges the optimistic sense with which she discussed "action" earlier in the book.

Jeffrey Champlin
Jeffrey Champlin is Fellow, Center for Civic Engagement and Human Rights at Bard and Program Head of Literature and Society, Bard College at Al-Quds University. He received his Ph D from New York University and has taught at NYU and Middlebury College. His work focuses on strategies and ruptures of representation in political theory, literature, and aesthetics.
2Mar/152

Arendt and Transformation

Transformation

By Thomas Wild

“Let us assume I had an extraordinarily good memory, I would never have written anything down.”

– Hannah Arendt, 1964

“Let us assume I had an extraordinarily good memory, I would never have written anything down,” Hannah Arendt once said in an interview. We are lucky that Arendt actually did not have that kind of memory. Had she never written anything down, all her thoughts, in the moment she died, would have vanished from the world as though they had never existed.

Thomas Wild
Thomas Wild is an Assistant Professor of German Studies and a Hannah Arendt Center Research Associate at Bard College. He's published and edited several books on Hannah Arendt. His further research interests include contemporary German literature, film, poetics, and multilingualism. He is co-editor-in-chief preparing the first critical edition of Hannah Arendt's Complete Writings in English and German.
12Jan/150

Arendt’s Plurality of Languages

Tower of Babel

** This article was originally published on our blog on Monday, August 13, 2012. **

Plurality of languages: [...] It is crucial 1. that there are many languages and that they differ not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar, and so in mode of thought and 2. that all languages are learnable.”

-- Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, i.e. Thinking Diary, p. 42f

Hannah Arendt learned English quickly. In the year after her arrival to the USA in 1941, her work was already being printed by American magazines and publishers. In November 1950, as she wrote the above sentences on the “plurality of languages,” she refined her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and readied it for publication. Contemporaneously with the publication of her first book in English and shortly before her “naturalization” as an American citizen, Arendt began her Denktagebuch. The book—a diary of reflections, of sorts—was written in several languages and often, like the entry above, in German.

Thomas Wild
Thomas Wild is an Assistant Professor of German Studies and a Hannah Arendt Center Research Associate at Bard College. He's published and edited several books on Hannah Arendt. His further research interests include contemporary German literature, film, poetics, and multilingualism. He is co-editor-in-chief preparing the first critical edition of Hannah Arendt's Complete Writings in English and German.
29Dec/140

Thinking and Transcendence

reflection

“[W]henever I transcend the limits of my own life span and begin to reflect on this past, judging it, and this future, forming projects of the will, thinking ceases to be a politically marginal activity. And such reflections will inevitably arise in political emergencies.”

---Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (Thinking)

There have been several new studies on and discussions about Adolf Eichmann lately. In them, Arendt’s name is frequently mentioned for fairly obvious reasons. Her remarks on Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness,” including her “banality of evil” and its relevance in assessing modern day atrocities, have forewarned against the consequences of totalitarianism for more than a half-century now. But some scholars, including Bettina Stangneth in her new book Eichmann Before Jerusalem, are challenging Arendt’s ideas. This gives us an opportunity to look back on Arendt’s theories and reevaluate their logic ourselves.

Kazue Koishikawa
Kazue Koishikawa recently earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Duquesne University. She is working on her first book, in which she explores reading the political philosophy of Arendt as a phenomenological theory of imagination, particularly in Arendt’s interpretation of Kant’s aesthetic judgment. She specializes in phenomenology and political philosophy.
24Nov/140

Amor Mundi 11/23/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-up
On Loneliness

lonelinessIn The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz writes about the deadening impact of loneliness and how it can ravage our body and our brain. She traces modern interest in loneliness to Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a psychoanalyst whose "1959 essay, 'On Loneliness,' is considered a founding document in a fast-growing area of scientific research you might call loneliness studies. Over the past half-century, academic psychologists have largely abandoned psychoanalysis and made themselves over as biologists. And as they delve deeper into the workings of cells and nerves, they are confirming that loneliness is as monstrous as Fromm-Reichmann said it was. It has now been linked with a wide array of bodily ailments as well as the old mental ones. In a way, these discoveries are as consequential as the germ theory of disease. Just as we once knew that infectious diseases killed, but didn't know that germs spread them, we've known intuitively that loneliness hastens death, but haven't been able to explain how. Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer's, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer - tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people." The turn toward biology situates loneliness as a mental and a physical illness, one to be combated with public health programs. Shulevitz traces the efforts to medicalize loneliness, as well as programs to treat loneliness as a problem of inequality. And yet, in the end, she suggests that humans have incredible resources to fend off loneliness: "[T]here's something awe-inspiring about our resilience, too. Put an orphan in foster care, and his brain will repair its missing connections. Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a supernatural being, and your score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale will go down. Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or a church can lead to what Cole calls 'molecular remodeling.' 'One message I take away from this is, "Hey, it's not just early life that counts,"' he says. 'We have to choose our life well.'"

Arendt and the "Mass Man"

arendt lonelinessLoneliness was a constant theme in Hannah Arendt's work. In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, published in 1950, Arendt writes: "Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals." Totalitarianism depends upon "the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class." Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. "The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships." Stripped of the political, social, and intellectual traditions that historically bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. As Paul Morrow writes, "Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political - and overvalue social or commercial - interactions." And Bill Dixon adds: "To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one's place in the world completely. The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of 'uprootedness' and 'superfluousness' that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism. Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway. Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone."  

Integrity and Privacy

snowdenDavid Bromwich reviews Laura Poitras' Citizenfour and argues that it shows Edward Snowden to be a modern hero, a courageous conscientious objector in the war on privacy: "An incidental strength of Citizenfour is that it will make such casual slanders harder to repeat. Nevertheless, they are likely to be repeated or anyway muttered in semiprivate by otherwise judicious persons who want to go on with their business head-down and not be bothered. It must be added that our past politics give no help in arriving at an apt description of Snowden and his action. The reason is that the world in which he worked is new. Perhaps one should think of him as a conscientious objector to the war on privacy - a respectful dissident who, having observed the repressive treatment endured by William Binney, Thomas Drake, and other recent whistle-blowers, does not recognize the constitutional right of the government to put him in prison indefinitely and bring him to trial for treason. His action constitutes a reproach to the many good citizens who have learned what is happening and done nothing about it. That, too, is surely a cause of the resentment that has a hard time finding the appropriate adjectives for Snowden." Bromwich is right that listening to Snowden in the movie is to be in the presence of someone of integrity: "The undeclared subject of Citizenfour is integrity - the insistence by an individual that his life and the principle he lives by should be all of a piece. Something resembling an aesthetic correlative of that integrity can be found in the documentary style of Laura Poitras." What Snowden, Poitras, and Bromwich show is that the core of privacy is integrity. It is thus the integrity of the person that is under attack in the age of surveillance.

Learning and Teaching

teachingIn an essay about how it is for teachers, both now and in the past, Jonathan Zimmerman says he thinks he's figured out what's happened to teaching in America: "the federal Race to the Top program sponsored by the Obama administration encouraged schools to use students' test scores in evaluating individual teachers. The primary responsibility of teachers is no longer to encourage good behavior in future citizens, as Horace Mann insisted. Instead, it's to ensure that they get the right answers on a high-stakes test. The shift in goals has unfortunately done nothing to alter the tedious, anti-intellectual practices of American teaching. If anything, the strong commitment to 'academic' goals has probably made teaching less academic - so far as the quality of learning is concerned - and more routinized than it was before. When teachers were hired for their inborn ability to 'nurture' schoolchildren, many derided or disregarded their intellectual capacities. Now we've created a system that is so firmly tied to scholastic achievement - as narrowly defined by standardized tests - that no serious scholar would want to teach in it."

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Rereading Without Revising

readingIn the New York Times, seven writers reread some of their old work and write about how they feel about it all this time later. Marilynne Robinson, for example, tries to recall what it was like to write Housekeeping: "In writing 'Housekeeping' I was trying to recover the appearance and the atmosphere of a very particular place, northern Idaho. When I wrote it, I had not spent much time there for almost 20 years. So it was very much an exploration of memory that I was engaged in. I thought I was writing an unpublishable book, so I was undistracted by other considerations than my own interest in the workings of memory and the ability of language to evoke what I 'saw' in memory. I found that the common old question 'What was it like?' stimulated recollection and recruited words and images that made my sense of the thing remembered, a place or a smell or the glint of light on water, much more accessible to me than I could have anticipated. It became a discipline for me, always to keep a scene before my eyes and to be ready to value and explore any detail that presented itself to me with an especially pungent or plangent specificity. I wrote much of the book in a darkened room. This was not intended as part of the experiment, but it may have contributed to it. My memories were often as bright as dreams and often as highly detailed. Only the place is actually remembered in the book. None of the characters or events are real. The point was to let my imagination take on the colorations of memory and interpret the place, as music might do."

Not The Absence of Fear

cornel westIn an interview with Questlove Thompson, an interview that's as much about music as anything else, Cornel West defines courage: "But we all live in fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the working through and overcoming of fear. Brother Martin had fear. He just wouldn't allow fear to determine his behavior. As human beings, everyone has stuff coming at them, and a certain kind of fear. But courage is being true to yourself, true to a sense of integrity. And that's what is more and more difficult."

At the Intersection of Art and Commerce

ursula le guinIn her National Book Awards acceptance speech, Ursula K. Lu Guin explains why she loves, and fears for, literature: "Books aren't just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable - but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words. I've had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don't want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn't profit. Its name is freedom."

On Ethics and Reporting

bill cosbyIn a piece about the resurfaced allegations of rape against Bill Cosby, Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that he, like all writers, lives in history, with his own context and biography. Knowing that is a kindness - one, he suggests, that an ethical journalist must transcend: "The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else's salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby's moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I'd ever written. It was not enough. I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality - and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible. I don't have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away."

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Featured Events

Film Screening & Director's Discussion: Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 5:00 - 8:00 pm


Roundtable on Academic Freedom

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bard College Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Johannes Lang discusses Arendt's critique of obedience in political and moral matters in the Quote of the Week. Carl Sagan provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we remember a talk George Kateb gave at our 2011 annual fall conference on the ideal of governmental transparency. And we appreciate Arendt's impressive collection of Goethe's works in our Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
3Nov/140

The Weakening of Power Through Violence

hong kong protests

**This post was originally published on October 11, 2011**

"Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it."

--Hannah Arendt, On Violence

As we continue to see pro-democracy protest movements such as those in Hong Kong sprout up around the world, many today look back to the 1960s with a romantic fascination. Hannah Arendt had great respect for the student protest movements—most of all she appreciated the joy they took in acting in public. And yet, she was also critical of the use of violence. Arendt approached political violence during the late 1960s as a sign of the decline in power.

Jeffrey Champlin
Jeffrey Champlin is Fellow, Center for Civic Engagement and Human Rights at Bard and Program Head of Literature and Society, Bard College at Al-Quds University. He received his Ph D from New York University and has taught at NYU and Middlebury College. His work focuses on strategies and ruptures of representation in political theory, literature, and aesthetics.
8Sep/140

Work and Culture

world

“The earthly home becomes a world only when objects as a whole are produced and organized in such a way that they may withstand the consumptive life-process of human beings living among them – and may outlive human beings, who are mortal.”

--Hannah Arendt, “Culture and Politics”

In reflections upon the writings of Hannah Arendt, specifically The Human Condition, scholars traditionally respond to her concepts of politics, action, and the public realm. And rightly so: these concepts are undeniably at the core of Arendt’s philosophy, sometimes quite ambiguous in their definition, and hence often in need of scholarly analysis. However, meaningful responses to Arendt’s interpretation of work are quite rare. That might not be a surprise. In her writings, the category of work remains underexposed. One might even argue that beyond the chapter on Work in The Human Condition, only in the essays “Crisis in Culture” (1961) and the preceding “Kultur und Politik” (1959) does work receive any significant attention. Of course, scores of her critics have argued that the categories of human activity – labor, work, and action – are much more intermixed in real life than how Arendt understands them. But this does not undermine the basic tenets of Arendt’s philosophy.

Hans Teerds
Hans Teerds is an architect based in Amsterdam. He currently is writing a Ph.D thesis on the public aspects of architecture as understood through the writings of Hannah Arendt at the Delft University of Technology.
21Jul/140

The Story of Reconciliation

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**This article was originally published on April 9, 2012. You can access the original article here.**

"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.

--Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
3Mar/140

Arendtian Action

Arendtquote

‘This child, this in-between to which the lovers are now related and which they hold in common, is representative of the world in that it also separates them; it is an indication that they will insert a new world into the existing world.’

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

What can we know about Arendtian action? In The Human Condition, Arendt tells us, variously, that it belongs to the public sphere, “the space of appearance”, that it takes place between political equals, and that it is “ontologically rooted” in “the fact of natality”. “Natality”, here, is not the same as birth, though it relies on the fact of birth for its conceptual understanding. Natality is the distinctly human capacity to bring forth the new, the radical, the unprecedented: that which is unaccountable by any natural causality, but the fact that we must recourse to the patterns of the natural world in order to explain it is what interests me here.

When we try to fix a notion of Arendtian action, it becomes clear that speech has an important role to play, though the precise relationship between speech and action is a slippery one. Actions are defined in speech, becoming recognisable as actions only when they have been placed in narrative, that is: regarded with “the backward glance of the historian”. At the same time, most actions “are performed in the manner of speech”. Speech is rendered as the revelatory tool of action, but, further to this, both action and speech share a number of key characteristics so that it is impossible to fully disentangle the one from the other.

A moment of possible illumination arrives under the heading “Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive”. For Arendt, action has no end. It contains within it the potential to produce an endless chain of reactions that are both unforeseeable and irreversible. With such terrifying momentum attached to everything we do, forgiveness is our release from the consequences of what we have done, without which “our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to a single deed from which we could never recover”. In this context, forgiveness is always radical. It is the beginning of the possibility of the new: “… the act of forgiving can never be predicted, it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way  and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action”.

What’s more, forgiveness is personal, though not necessarily individual or private. It is, traditionally, connected to love, which Arendt describes as unworldly, indeed: “the most powerful of all anti-political human forces”. In the image of the lovers’ child, the child is used to represent the possibility of forgiveness, that is made representative of the world in its ability to join and divide.

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Ultimately, it is not love that Arendt places in relation to forgiveness, it is a distant respect that can only occur “without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us”. Yet, in this moment in the text, Arendt leans upon an image of the unworldly in order to pull from it the particular activities of the world. It is the ability of action to emerge -- unforeseeable, unprecedented -- that Arendt performs here in language. It is the movement of the imagery that alerts us to the essential quality of action to appear, unexpected, as well as to the fragility of the political realm and its complex array of differences from and interconnections with the private. One need only examine the syntax to understand the dynamic of action that Arendt illustrates here: where a semi-colon would usually indicate two halves of a balanced equation, Arendt uses it as a springboard from which to make a tiger’s leap into the new.

There are a number of things to be gained from a close reading of the linguistic representation of the movement of action, not least in light of the fact that, in writing this book, Arendt is expressing a deep-seated fear that the faculty for action is about to slip away from us entirely. While much ink has been spilled over whether or not the categories and oppositions that arise in The Human Condition can be fully understood in any concrete way, on whether or not they hold, it may be that the apparent slippages in the text are, in fact, our most fruitful way in to understanding the particular dynamics and character of Arendtian action; an understanding that may then be put to some homeopathic use in our own work.

-Anna Metcalfe

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
26Feb/140

Politics Beyond Councils: Arendt, Recognition, and Feminism

Arendtiana

Marieke Borren, “Feminism as Revolutionary Practice: From Justice and the Politics of Recognition to Freedom”

Hypatia vol. 28, no. 1 (Winter 2013)

One of the broader appeals of feminism for critical thinking today derives from its focus on specificity. In their focus on embodiment, in the narrower and wider sense, the best feminist writers offer a productive complement to postmodern critiques of subjectivity based on the power of superstructures. The relationship is rarely peaceful, and, in its essentialist guise, insistence on identity of any kind seems to merely push back against the power of structures rather than engaging it. Borren turns to Arendt to propose a definition of freedom and action that may assist minority political movements such as feminism reach specific goals related to identity, but does not require a agreement on the commonalities of the actors.

Borren's article has two main proposals. First, against the general trend of feminist criticism, she defends Arendt's division between the social and the political. Second, she identifies aspects of Arendt's celebration of the council system in On Revolution that she sees as having a wider application.

on

If first wave feminism focused on gender equality (in terms of equal rights), second wave feminism emphasized difference, not only between genders, but within feminism itself. Borren highlights the importance of recognition for this group, which she specifies as the need to be acknowledged as one of a group that a person self-identifies. In response to this idea, she reminds us that Arendt was not concerned with “what” people are as (essentialist) groups, but “who” they are individuals. In defining justice not in terms of recognition, but freedom, she sees a feminist contribution from Arendt. To this extent she defends the separation of the realm of the social from the realm of action as far as the definition of politics is concerned, since the social stands for “behavior guided by rules and norms” as opposed to unexpected action. Still, Borren argues that action can nonetheless act on social questions such as the economy or discrimination. The important point is that for Arendt “difference is not opposed to equality but […] they mutually presuppose each other” (203). Equality in this sense is not the presupposition of action but arises only upon entrance to a group that will act.

In her analysis of Arendt's writing on the councils, Borren highlights that the councils acted directly (without structures of parliamentary representation), for concrete goals, and for short periods of time. She sees these aspects of the council system as illustrative for action by what she calls “extra-parliamentary” groups and “voluntary associations,” by which she means activist and civic organizations. They approach a common problem in a limited frame of space and time, and this action is itself the focus rather than the search for a basis of common qualities for the group. Although questions of identity may be at stake, the focus is on “the world to which we relate from plural perspectives” (202).

This description of action help Borren describe the early stages of first wave (equality) and second wave (difference) feminism in terms of “spontaneous emergence” and “associative action” (207). She even points to a possible “third wave feminism” in the culture movements around 1990s - ”Riot Grrrl” punk. Toward the end of the article, Borren pushes hard on the fact that “freedom in the Arendtian sense does not refer to freedom of choice or freedom of will, but to contingency, to the inherent spontaneity and unpredictability of action and speech and to newness” (210). Her formulation here is accurate, but at this point the connection to feminism as such falters.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
3Feb/140

Totalitarianism and the Sand Storm

Arendtquote

“If this practice [of totalitarianism] is compared with […] [the desert] of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth.
The conditions under which we exist today in the field of politics are indeed threatened by these devastating sand storms.”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

In the concluding chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarianism must be understood as a new “form of government” in its own right, rather than as a transitory or haphazard series of external catastrophes afflicting classical forms like democracy or monarchy.  Essentially different from the extralegal form of tyranny as well, totalitarianism’s emergence marks a terrifying new horizon for human political experience, one that will surely survive the passing of Hitler and Stalin.  Arendt’s point is that the totalitarian form is still with us because the all too protean origins of totalitarianism are still with us: loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare.

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The sand storm is Arendt’s metaphor for this volatile and shifting space that throws together the totalitarian form, the enduring civilizational crises that produced it, and the public realms that are precariously pitched against it.  The ambiguities and subtleties of Arendt’s striking metaphor are worth pausing over.  Her image of the sand storm can tell us a lot about the nature and environs of the totalitarian form - and the kinds of politics that might withstand it.

Arendt’s judgments about totalitarianism in the book’s conclusion are carefully measured and quietly demur from the Cold War bombast with which she is now so often associated.  Although Arendt argues that totalitarianism will most certainly recur after Hitler and Stalin, she insists that this new form is too self-destructive to last for very long in any given time and place. Totalitarianism’s suicidal rage for conquest and violence renders it unable to secure anything like a permanent world order.  (She notes in the second edition’s 1966 preface that it has undoubtedly thawed into tyranny in the Soviet Union.)  Critics and admirers of Arendt’s theory alike often overlook both the fast burn of totalitarianism’s death-drive and the wider geopolitical amorphousness that ignites it.  Totalitarianisms emerge for a time, then disappear suddenly, only to have some of their elements migrate, shape-shift, and re-emerge elsewhere, accomplishing fantastical destruction in the course of their coming-to-be and passing-away.  There is, then, paradoxically, a kind of fluidity, turbulence, and even formlessness that attends this new political form, which is partly what Arendt’s sand storm metaphor tries to convey.

What in the world could cause the desert of tyranny to be thrown into the air and perambulate the earth?  One might guess that the cause is something like absolute lawlessness.  And, indeed, the extraordinary criminality of totalitarianism makes it tempting to think of it as a mere modern tyranny, but Arendt’s desert-in-motion metaphor argues against this commonplace.  She likens tyranny to a desert because it is a political space that is evacuated of laws, institutions, and traditions.  What remains under tyranny, however, is the open space of plurality, where human beings can still confront one another within a cohering field of action and power.  Totalitarianism radically eliminates the space of plurality through the mobilizations of mass terror, collapsing the spaces between us that make us human.  Such mobilizations are not simply lawless.  Although contemptuous of positive law, totalitarianism is lawfully obedient to its own images of Nature and History.  More than this, the totalitarian form seeks to embody the laws of Nature and History.  Because it imagines that these laws can be directly enacted by politics, the totalitarian movement tries vainly to form their more-than-human movements.  Ideology helps to put the desert into motion too, but again not mainly through the lawlessness of unreason.  Rather, Arendt argues that totalitarian ideology is distinguished by its logical lawfulness.  Totalitarian logicality at once divorces thought from worldly common sense and attaches it to arbitrary and fleeting first principles.  The resulting conclusions are half-believed, inchoate certitudes that cling feverishly to a tight deductive form.  Thanks to this a priori sandblasting of common sense, the desert of tyranny is no longer a setting for the creative solace of solitude, exile, or contemplation.  It can only become the whirlwind of ideological reason in concert with the supra-human laws of everyday terror.

The most important force that throws the desert into motion is loneliness, which Arendt distinguishes from isolation.  Isolation, the old game of divide and conquer, belongs to the desert of tyranny.  Isolated women and men lack an organized public realm in which to create freedom with others. Yet they nonetheless retain a private realm that roots them in the world through home, family, work, and labor.  To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one’s place in the world completely.  The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of “uprootedness” and “superfluousness” that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism.  Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway.  Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone.  The genius of mass terror is that it is able to sustain precisely this kind of loneliness among many millions of people together simultaneously.  This is in part, Arendt argues, because totalitarian ideology seems to promise an escape from loneliness, that is, to offer form to what was before felt as superfluous and uprooted.  It is also because there is something in the psychology of loneliness that makes it singularly susceptible to the ideological calculus of despair and fatalism, to “deducing […] always the worst possible conclusions,” as Arendt puts it.

origins

Arendt herself does not pursue the worst possible conclusions in the final chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism.  She does, however, entertain the dark possibility that the “true predicaments” of our times have yet “to assume their authentic form,” a form that she does not expect to be totalitarian.  Given her sand storm metaphor, this remark might be understood as a double warning about the emergence of still newer political forms and the persistent dangers of political formlessness.  While it may be difficult to imagine worse forms than totalitarianism, Arendt’s story is also about the generative origins of totalitarianism.  She concludes her book by arguing that these origins are still very much in the wind.  The protean creativity of these airborne elements makes political life a much more precarious and circumscribed affair than it might otherwise appear, especially in the wake of Nazi defeat and Stalinism’s thaw.  That said, there exist other protean forces that are more congenial to the power of the public realm.  Against the sand storm, Arendt wagers on the formless forces of natality, the new beginnings that attend every human being for the sheer fact of having been born into the world as a distinct someone, different from all who have lived or will live.  The stubborn facts of natality do not yield reliably to loneliness or ideology or terror precisely because of their radical novelty, their inevitable disruptions of whatever preceded them, but also because of their inherent worldliness.  Natality’s stubborn facts will always push - sometimes weakly, sometimes irresistibly - toward plurality, action, power, and the public realm.  It is for this reason, if for no other, that totalitarianism’s origins will never be the only origins given to us.

-Bill Dixon

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Jan/140

The Unproductive Labor of Politics: Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith

Arendtiana

Richard Halpern, “Eclipse of Action: Hamlet and the Political Economy of Playing,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2008, pp. 450-482

As he formulates an original response to the classic problem of Hamlet’s non-action, Halpern offers one of the few critical analyses of Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith in The Human Condition. He shows how Arendt draws on Smith’s concepts of productive and unproductive labor to articulate her key concepts of work and labor. Moreover, his close reading draws our attention to an intriguing paradox in the temporality of action that may indicate a corrective—albeit a difficult one—to the current demand for instant gratification that often leads to cynicism in the face of great political challenges.

Halpern reminds us that Aristotle separates action from labor; Smith replaces action with production; and Arendt seeks to restore action to a place of prominence in the political realm. Arendt explicitly says that “the distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor” (HC 87). She does not simply take over Smith’s idea, but wishes to transfer his distinction from his own economic system (the “prejudice” of his own thought) to her own thinking of labor and work.  Halpern’s analysis of Arendt’s move helps us start to think about her surprising appeal to 18th century economic theory. Moreover, it her discussion of Smith (and better known critique of Marx), I see her posing an even broader question: what does it mean to be productive and what are the appropriate spheres of different types of productivity?

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Within the realm of production, Halpern looks at how Smith offers a further distinction in Book 2, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, under the heading “Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labor”:

There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976), 351.)

Smith draws a distinction between labor that holds or builds value (say the manufacture of a chair), and labor that evaporates the moment the worker completes it (such as cleaning the house or washing clothes). Classical political economists of the 18th and 19th century engaged in wide ranging debates over what should “count” as value before capitalist countries agreed on the ratio of labour to output or per capita GDP as the standard; socialist countries, following the USSR, adopted an alternative “material product system” that prioritized the amount of goods. In a time of environmental change, this glimpse into the history of economic theory may offer a helpful reminder that society can decide to change the standard of economic success.

According to Halpern, Arendt draws from Smith not to rehabilitate an outmoded aspect of economic theory, but to draw inspiration for her creation of distinct conceptual spaces for labor, work, and action. Specifically, she aligns Smith’s “unproductive labor” with her circular conception of labor and “productive labor” with her linear conception of work. This does not mean that labor is unproductive but it does require a clarification of different types of productivity. I see it as useful to keep the discussion on productivity since these spheres of private life and cultural and industrial economy then offer a contrast to the political sphere where action can happen. Action is neither circular like labor, nor linear like work, but has its own peculiar directionality and temporality. Halpern’s analysis helpfully zeroes in on the perplexing relation between the ephemerality of labor and action and action’s desire for permanence:

The temporal paradox of the political is that while it aims at immortality, action and speech are, in themselves, evanescent: “Left to themselves, they lack not only the tangibility of other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption” (HC 95). Like Smith’s unproductive labor, action disappears in the moment of its occurrence because it leaves no material trace behind. (Halpern, 457)

Politics demands an extraordinary effort. It asks that one expend energy indefinitely for an uncertain reward. Discussion and debate goes on and on, only occasionally clicking with spectacular agreement or deflationary compromise. Arendt’s analysis can help us perceive the difficulty of contemporary politics that attempts to fit into consumer culture that preserves, and thus remembers, nothing.

Arendt’s attention to the aspects of debate and negotiation that might be seen as unproductive (a dimension that in other parts of the Human Condition she relates to menial work, again often in relation to Smith) offers a corrective to a misguided understanding of politics that leads to frustration and despair.Even if we are not at the extreme level of the menial functioning of a New England town hall meeting debating the budget for potholes or an Occupy Wall Street discussion that requires unanimous consensus for closure, politics works in a different temporality. Rather than the fever pitched accusations of crisis that in the U.S. actually covers up rather than encourage political risk, a more humble sense of public debate as requiring something like the patience of the menial task may be a corrective.

Political action in Arendt’s sense differs from work in being freed from a fixed goal. She links this freedom, which for her is based on self-referentiality, to drama:

Arendt’s discomfort with the economic dimension of theater reveals itself when she criticizes Adam Smith for grouping actors, along with churchmen, lawyers, musicians, and others, as unproductive laborers and hence as lowly cousins of the menial servant (HC 207). Arendt would distinguish all of these activities from labor in that they “do not pursue an end . . . and leave no work behind . . . , but exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself ” (206). Smith’s inclusion of these autotelic activities under the category of labor is for Arendt a sign of the degradation that human activity had already undergone by the early days of the modern era. By contrast, “It was precisely these occupations—healing, flute-playing, play-acting—which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man” (207–21). What Arendt overlooks is that—already in the ancient world—healing, flute playing, and playacting became remunerated professions and differed in this respect from politics, which was not the work of a professional class of politicians. (Halpern 458)

Arendt agrees that actors on the stage perform fleeting scenes, but wishes to link this to “the highest and greatest activities of man,” ie. those of politics. Halpern argues that in fact, actors in ancient times already worked for wages and were thus not independent like citizens in their roles as politicians. Nonetheless, Arendt shows us that in the modern period we can learn something about acting in politics from acting in the arts. The key point for Halpern is that drama, etc. are “autotelic activities.” They do not even keep up the house like menial work; they have their own end and really evaporate in reaching this end. Political action works along an undecidable edge: even less productive than labor but at any moment potentially the most lasting. Against the odds, politics holds open the space in which something new can begin and thus renew the human world against the circular forces of nature.

One could reasonably argue that in his focus on the connection between labor and action, Halpern fails to adequately emphasize the importance of work. In a world of labor and the victory of animal laborans, there is no work to preserve action and no polis/world to give action memorialization. Indeed, we face the danger of the collapse of the world into the “waste economy” (HC 134) and the seductions to action disappear. However, Halpern does not say that play is action for Arendt but rather, as I understand his argument, that it there is an aspect of action that is like play. Action requires debate that may seem to be going nowhere, or just be undertaken for its own sake up to the moment that it takes a risk. When it dares to venture into the public realm, action clearly very different from play as a hobby.

Labor is both constant and fleeting. On the one hand, the demands of the body never end, nor do the cycles of nature. On the other hand, labor is also fleeting in that its mode of production only temporarily maintains life. Action is also fleeting from the perspective that the risk it takes often evaporates but has the utmost political constancy when one considers those actions that succeed in forming the power of a new beginning.

shakes

In the remainder of the article, Halpern moves from The Human Condition to Hamlet, arguing that Shakespeare replaces action on the classical model of tragedy with the ceaseless activity of Hamlet’s thoughts. This activity runs in circles like unproductive labor in Smith and labor in Arendt rather than the action of Aristotle’s aesthetic and Arendt’s political ideal. From an Arendtian point of view, the modernity of the drama reveals a challenge to politics, the challenge of a time out of joint that action has to face again and again.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
13Jan/140

Constitutions and the Social Questions: Arendt, Ambedkar, and the limits of Political Theory

Arendtquote

“[T]o the extent that they had a positive notion of freedom which would transcend the idea of a successful liberation from tyrants and from necessity, this notion was identified with the act of foundation, that is, the framing of a constitution.”

-Hannah Arendt, "On Revolution"

The year just gone by marked the centenary of B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, often referred to as the ‘father of the Indian Constitution’, even though it was a claim of paternity that he vigorously rejected in later years (for reasons we shall soon get to). Ambedkar is a remarkable, and in some ways paradoxical member of that exclusive club of great constitutional founders. The significance of his influence in the framing of the Indian Constitution is incontrovertible. Yet, he was in many ways an outsider to the class of political elites that assumed power at the moment of India’s independence from British colonial rule. Politically, he remained an opponent of the Congress Party, the party that dominated the anticolonial struggle as well as the postcolonial government for decades. More significantly, his status as an outsider was marked most starkly by him being a Dalit, an “untouchable” from one of the lowest rungs of India’s caste hierarchy. Unlike most of the members of the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar experienced in his own life the degrading and dehumanizing aspects of caste oppression, and devoted his public life to the cause of eradicating the caste system. As an outsider in this double sense, both in terms of his opposition to the dominant political party, and hailing from the most marginalized and oppressed sections of the society, the story of Ambedkar’s relationship to the Constitution illuminate certain paradoxes of new beginnings that only those at the margins can illuminate.

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Let us return to Arendt’s quote. There are three elements in the quote that reflect themes that run through "On Revolution." First, one finds here an elaboration of two concepts that engaged her for much of her life: freedom and beginnings, from an explicitly political standpoint. Freedom, as a political concept, is understood as the collective capacity of human beings to create a new political reality. Emerging in moments of revolution, what marks this political freedom is its ability to institute, to create a new and secure public space. It gives political actors the ability to author their own political world. It is, in that sense, world-making.

The quote then identifies this world-making act in a particular form – that of “framing of a constitution”. The fulfillment of the promise of freedom generated by the revolutionary moment is the making of a new constitution. What political freedom brings forth then is something specific – new institutions and constitutional structures, which acts as bricks and mortars for the new world that has been created, and creates the concrete space where freedom can become a political reality, and not an abstract concept. Lastly, it names ‘tyranny’ and ‘necessity’ as the two conditions from which freedom is marked, a point which we will return to later.

Ambedkar’s participation – especially in a central capacity as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee – in the making of the Indian Constitution was in itself an interesting fact. As a consistent opponent of the Congress, especially its leader M.K. Gandhi, and as one who was deeply weary of the upper caste leadership of the Congress, one can wonder why he accepted the position offered to him. One possible answer that could be gleaned from his extensive interventions during the constituent assembly debates is a cautious hope that the Constitution would succeed in creating a new institutional structure that could ameliorate, and even eliminate, the most pervasive forms of unfreedom experienced by Indians. That a constitution would succeed in not merely marking India’s liberation from colonial rule, but in creating a new political world free from the hierarchies and dominations of the past.

Ambedkar’s belief in the significance of this new possibility was evident in an extraordinary speech he made at the floor of the assembly, whereby he laid out a strong case as to why after the commencement of the constitution extra-constitutional political actions should be delegitimized. Now that free India has a constitution of its own, written and instituted in the name of “We the People”, extra-constitutional political mobilizations should be replaced with contestations through constitutional paths. This argument is especially significant given that one of those ‘extra-constitutional’ forms of actions Ambedkar mentioned in this speech was the Gandhian method of civil disobedience that had garnered wide prevalence during the struggle against colonial rule.

Here we see a distance developing between Arendt and Ambedkar. Arendt despite the importance she accorded to domesticating the revolution through creation of institutions, remained skeptical of constitutional law emerging as the only acceptable language of political action. In ‘On Revolution’ itself she goes on to ask, in an uneasy tone, “if the end of revolution and the introduction of constitutional government spelled the end of public freedom, was it then desirable to end the revolution?” The moment of constitution making was identified by Arendt with the notion of a “positive idea of freedom” not in a transcendental but an immanent way. What made it special was not simply the institution of some higher order value system, but that it was a sublime expression of creative political act – a political world making par excellence. The freedom inheres not in the ideal form of ‘a constitution’, but in the act of constituting, which reveals the essential human agency for self-reflexively creating the world that one inhabits.

The resuscitation of this creative agency was at the heart of Arendt’s political thought. In the landscape of mid-twentieth century, in an increasingly bureaucratized space of human existence where collective action became dictated by the rationale of ‘necessity’ and the ‘tyranny’ of governmentalized calculations, Arendt sought in politics a space where human beings could collective reclaim their ability to make their own world from which they have been alienated. To this end (as Hanna Pitkin has pointed out) sets of binaries emerge in her work – freedom is contrasted with necessity, action with behavior, polis with oikos, and politics with ‘the social’.

She sought to recover that space, marked by the first half of those binaries, through thinking, speech and action in concert in the public realm. It was based on mutuality and reciprocity – captured in her well-known discussion of the faculty of ‘promising’ – conducted amongst human beings who spoke and acted towards each other as equals political beings. These words and deeds, properly political in nature, produced and maintained the space for freedom against ‘tyranny’ and ‘necessities’. She refused to seek foundation for this space in something outside of those words and deeds – either in a sovereign will, or in some form of desirable social condition achieved via analysis and transformation of social relations. The space was produced and maintained through the continual act of producing and maintaining it.

The most significant aspect of the ‘revolution’ that precedes the constitution – as Arendt showed through her stylized reconstruction of the American revolutionary experience – was therefore not any pure claim to an absolute break or fundamental change of a socio-economic fact, but the creation of a condition where human beings can collectively come together to self-reflexively create author their own political world. This was the great good fortune of the American revolutionaries that Arendt talked about. They had through their lived experience and associational forms generated the necessary praxis for this form of speech and action much before the revolutionary event or the constitutional moment came about. The condition for the realization of freedom in America according to Arendt was, as Bonnie Honig writes, “brought into being avant la lettre” so to speak. In that instance, the letters of the constitution reveal, express and institutionalize something whose conditions in a conceptual form was already conceived. The birth could not happen without conception.

One can say that for Arendt it created a space for political theory free from both political theology and social analysis. The constitution is the supreme achievement borne out of such a theory in praxis.

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What was Ambedkar’s assessment of the possibility for such an achievement in India? In his concluding speech, he noted what he called the ‘contradictions’ inherent to the process of making a constitution. “On the 26th of January [the day the Constitution was adopted] we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we shall be recognizing the principle of one man, one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of economic structure continue to deny [this principle]. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradiction? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so by putting our democracy in peril.” Note the foreboding tone of the last line. Ambedkar here is not voicing a simple discomfort about the existence of inequities in the Indian social life. Rather, he voices a far deeper concern about the limits of political theory to accomplish the work of creating a space where freedom “is not a concept but a living reality” without the attendant work of social transformation. Despite the extraordinary achievement of liberation from colonial rule, and the constituting of a polity with full political rights, Ambedkar suggests that the path of becoming republican citizens, for Indians, cannot run through the terrain of political theory alone and eschew the treacherous field of social theory. One cannot meaningfully talk about the sphere of freedom without also at the same time dealing with the sphere of necessity – not because one shouldn’t, but because one cannot. Dealing with only one only ends up generating a “contradiction’ that would imperil the whole project. Given this predicament, the endeavor of making a constitution for India had to concern itself with the social question – with “necessities” – which Ambedkar supported. Nevertheless, in the subsequent years after the constitution was brought in force he became increasingly weary of the potential of the constitution-making project to create any meaningful condition of freedom for the people of India. As the preeminent leader of those who were the most marginalized in the Indian society, he was acutely aware of this limitation. In 1953, only three years after the Constitution came into force, he remarked: “My friends tell me that I have made the Constitution. But I am quiet prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out.” It was a spectacular act of renunciation from a man still referred to as the father of the Indian Constitution. This renunciation, it must be underlined, was not of the nature of a Jeffersonian demand for generational renewal of the revolutionary moment. It was not a lament about the extinguishing of the revolutionary flame. Rather, it was an expression of the frustration with a social revolution that never happened, and the related disavowal of the faith he once held in the constituent moment to truly birth a new political reality.

The question worth thinking through here is not just about the specificities of the Indian history. Rather, it concerns the nature of political theory itself, and the enduring question that Arendt took as the central concern of that theoretical endeavor – freedom. In the context of the late twentieth century landscape, and what she took to be alienating and fatal encroachment of the ‘social question’ on the sphere of human collective action, Arendt was unwilling to ground her conception of freedom – and of politics – on an analysis of social conditions under which human beings live. Her response to the challenges of twentieth century political life was to draw upon the experience of late eighteenth century colonists who, in Tocqueville’s phrase, were ‘born equal’ rather than having to become so. The horizontal practice of concerted action and mutual promises, harnessed in town halls and churches, could show a way towards creating a space for practicing and theorizing politics free from the clutches of necessity, and its attendant social analysis and calculus. The supreme achievement of that late eighteenth century moment – making of the constitution – provided a template for a political and reflexive collective world making act, free from the technocratic calculus of social transformation. Yet Ambedkar’s own journey – as the preeminent constitution maker coming from the margins of the Indian ‘social’ as Arendt would call it – and its tragic denouement demonstrates the limits of that vision. It shows that in creating the space for agonistic political freedom, one cannot ignore the weapons being wielded through social power. Countering those weapons requires analyzing and addressing the condition that produces them. Finding the theory and praxis for such a move, without retreating into a technocratic calculus, remains the challenge for contemporary political thought, as much for our time as it was for Arendt’s.

-Sandipto Dasgupta, Lecturer in Social Studies, Harvard University

Acknowledgement: I wanted to acknowledge Christophe Jaffrelot, whose paper on Ambedkar at a recent conference provided the initial food for thought for this piece. 
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